Blog post

Under the Sign of Saturn, a Movement is Born

Richard Seymour31 January 2017

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This piece first appeared at Lenin's Tomb.


There has been non-stop chaos in the American state since Trump took office. This is partly, but not primarily, a matter of incompetence. There is no doubt that these moves could have been prepared for a lot better by the incoming Trump team.

Yet, I think it is also a deliberate offensive, the chaos a welcome element in the attempt to disorient enemies within the state apparatuses and, by forcing a rupture in which normal rules are suspended, change the balance of forces condensed in the state. The promotion of Bannon, a mere fascist propagandist before he had Trump's ear, to the National Security Council is an extraordinary manifestation of this. The joint chiefs of staff and director of national intelligence are being sidelined. The State Department has been purged of figures likely to impede Trump's objectives, even at the cost of leaving the bureaucracy dysfunctional. Clearly, the administration inner circle is looking to assemble their allies within the deep state quickly, both to forestall any challenge to their own operations and to advance their countersubversive goals. The New York Post gets the idea: "A clean sweep may mean some chaos — but a new start has virtues of its own."  
But planned chaos might still be a strategic blunder. All the signs have been that while Trump is an excellent salesperson and orator, he has none of the qualities one would need to run a capitalist-democratic state. He can't hope to run these bureaucracies like the Trump Organization, relying on a trusted inner circle to advise him. The American state is probably the most bloated, labyrinthine bureaucracy in the whole world. It is necessarily a fissiparous institution riven by factions and the play of opposing forces. While the state is necessarily a state "under law" (so that a degree of predictability is imposed by judicial reasoning, unfolding from established legal axioms), it must also be a disciplined apparatus. And that discipline comes from the political direction of the executive. Or is supposed to.
In the absence of that, Trump risks a backlash from within the state.


Trump's "executive actions" were designed as both propaganda and deed. They gave the appearance to his base of decisiveness, of winning, of so much winning that they're going to get sick of winning. They also risked actually winning. There was no guarantee that any significant resistance would appear, and they already began to have a material impact on people rounded up at airports — which can be quite frightening places in normal times.

And there was certainly no guarantee that any part of the ruling class would lash back. The interesting thing about the US ruling class response to Trump has been its bifurcation. On the one hand, seemingly gracious concession of his legitimacy, pleas to "give him a chance"; and on the other hand, quite a crazed campaign against (dixit Keith Olbermann) "RUSSIAN SCUM!" The former, indicated by Clinton and others who cheerfully joined Trump's Imperial Death March inauguration gala, has run out of steam remarkably quickly. Although it was strong enough to ensure that Trump's nominees were voted through, including the extraordinary Betsy DeVos and the very dangerous southern reactionary, Jeff Sessions.

The latter, while popular with certain game theory types, is not the sort of perspective that could sustain a mass movement. In fact, it could be quite ruinous. In the first instance, because it depends on the actions of deep state agencies which are of course utterly untrustworthy, it risks making people passively indignant rather than stirring them to action. Secondly, because it would involve an undemocratic challenge rather than a democratic encirclement of Trump and his Philistine Army, it would likely energise the right-wing, give them reasons to experiment with new tactics of disruption and terror. It would legitimise all that incipient militia-type energy.

And yet, a mass opposition has emerged. The inauguration of Donald Trump was closely followed an unexpectedly huge women's march, maybe including 3 to 4 million protesters across the country. By the accounts of participants, it was energising. It gave people a sense of their power. Millions who would never attend a protest in their lives, suddenly had a sense that they could actually do something about this. And if about this, why not other things? Why not, indeed, Black Lives Matter, as many people have been suggesting?

Now, the implementation of the "Muslim ban" has provoked protests at airports across the United States. These have been mostly illegal gatherings, acts of civil disobedience. They are ongoing today, and there is another protest taking place in the capital. Suddenly, masses of white people are protesting for Muslim Lives Matter. An excellent start. This dynamic has given confidence to the ACLU, which has thrown its clout into a serious legal challenge to the "Muslim ban" — ultimately successful.

Of course, the effect of the Trump victory can be seen in the fact that some law enforcement officers ignored the ruling and acted on what they interpreted as the effect of Trump's executive order anyway. The re-deployment of legal/police networks, will rely on key actors willing to resist orders from the courts, or at least passively circumvent them. Nonetheless, the attempted blitzkrieg in the apparatuses hasn't stopped bourgeois legality from being effective yet. The Department of Homeland Security has indicated that it will comply with the court's ruling.

This indicates the problem with Trump trying to exacerbate fissures in the state too quickly. He has over-reached. It is not he, but his opposition who now seem most able to exploit these fissures. He also over-reaches in continuing his war with the capitalist media, which are sources of powerful institutional legitimacy, closely looped into the reproduction of the state. (Indeed, following Althusser, we should just say that media apparatuses are state apparatuses.) He behaves as if he has an alternative source of political authority outside the state, an alternative ideological legitimacy capable of rivalling CNN and the New York Times. He doesn't. He is premature in that respect.

We await the backlash, and there is a degree of unpredictability in this situation. There are fascist potentialities here, and they are alarming in their current proximity to governing power. But thus far, I would suggest that Trump has played his hand badly, not well. If things continue like this, I don't rate his chances of achieving the $10 trillion cuts he is seeking.


There remains the question of Trump's overseas alliances. There is, of course, a global dynamic of which Trump's success is only one part. The latest Salvage perspectives puts it like this:  
Not since 1943 has there been a better time to be a fascist. The ‘liberal order’, the demise of which has been the subject of ruling-class hot takes for some years now, does indeed appear to be in a shabby state. Trump’s election – on which more within this issue – follows on from the vote for Brexit as a body blow to the politics of the ‘extreme centre’ in the very lands in which it was born. Victory for the far-right Freedom party in Austria’s presidential election was very narrowly averted: should Marine Le Pen win the forthcoming French presidential contest, against which no sensible punter would now bet, the resulting scrap of hard-won relief will evaporate. Then the UN security council will be led by the fascist- through hard-right of US, French and British politics, plus the distinct market-Stalinisms of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. In the second rank will be the hard-right Narendra Modi of India, and the Brazilian inheritors of a soft coup for austerity. This is not a world in which it is growing easier for workers to organise economic self-defence, or develop political organisations to achieve class demands.
  There are some sources of liberal opposition. Angela Merkel has criticised Trump's "Muslim ban." Hollande is critical, though he is almost dead and it won't matter if his successor is Marine Le Pen — as it probably would be if the choice were between Fillon and her. Justin Trudeau, whose record on refugees is nowhere near as good as his reputation, has been hammering Trump these last few days: and such statements matter. They will matter more so if Canadian social movements compel him to reverse recent policies that would make a nonsense of his promise to take in refugees denied by Trump. Trudeau, notably, is one of the few surviving liberal leaders because he pitched to the left, and spoke in an anti-austerity language. 

Where, though, is Britain in all this? Under May, it is trying to have its Trump and eat it. May, despite flirting with the Trumpian register, is neither a protectionist nor an isolationist. She wants Britain to play its traditional role in supporting global liberalism of the Washington variety, and for that needs the US to continue its role in managing globalisation. Her plan for hardcore Brexit depends on it, and she cares about this far more than about sentimental ideas of human rights.

However, while she may have thought she ducked a punch by refusing to comment on Trump's "relations with Mexico," and tetchily having "no opinion" on his policy against refugees, she made a big mistake. She invited Donald Trump on an official state visit to the United Kingdom, a chump move that has provoked a gale of fury and a petition supporting Corbyn's demand that Trump be banned for as long as the "Muslim ban" is in place — which is currently signed by more than half a million people. If Trump comes to the UK, he will be met by large numbers of protesters, probably anywhere he goes; if the invitation is rescinded, it will be the first victory Corbyn has enjoyed over May. May has been forced to claim she now disagrees with Trump's refugee policy, but has painted herself into an unsightly corner.


The anti-Trump protests on the inauguration weekend were global in spread, but concentrated in those parts of the world most closely tied to the US through military alliance, trade, political history and culture, above all in Europe and North America. That makes a certain sense. Trump is, as the fatuous phrase goes, "the leader of the free world" now. He has assumed command of a set of global relationships and institutions backed by US political, diplomatic, economic, and military power. He leads a state that has penetrated other, allied states across the world. As such, whatever he can get away with is potentially epoch-making for all countries most closely bound up in those relationships — for the shape of their class politics, the forms of their state legitimacy, the plausibility of racist nationalism and of outright fascist options, etc.

Still, as we have learned, Trump was actually serious about sending the army to steal Iraq's oil, serious about reconstituting the black sites programme (despite opposition from within his cabinet), serious about his sinophobia, and serious about his flirtation with Putin. This is going to lead, if he isn't deposed in favour of Mike Pence at some point soon, to a serious and unpredictable and dangerous international conflagration. One wonders if, more than even Bush did, Trump will summon into being world public opinion as a genuine counterpower.

Filed under: brexit, trump, us-politics